First Person

Week of 1/31/11: Teaching & learning tidbits

DPS catches heat over decision not to close schools

Denver Public Schools’ decision to hold classes Wednesday was being criticized by some parents andschool bus students, especially after news that school buses ran 10 to 15 minutes late because of the cold and one elementary school had no heat.

Still, Superintendent Tom Boasberg defended the decision, saying that part of what DPS does is provide a social service – provide a warm place and warm meal for students. Watch this 7News report. What do you think? Take the EdNews Parent poll. CBS4 examines how school officials make the decision to close schools.

Jeffco Schools’ snow day will be made up in May

While students across the metro area have the day off from school on Tuesday because of the weather conditions, students in Jeffco Public Schools already know that the day off is on loan. Read the short 9News report.

State ed panel needs you!

The State Advisory Council for Parent Involvement in Education invites applications from parents to fill three parent representative vacancies. Under state law, the council is charged with informing public education entities concerning best practices and strategies, aligned with national standards for family-school partnerships, for increasing parent involvement in public education and promoting family and school partnerships to help improve the quality of public education and raise the level of students’ academic achievement statewide.

As required by law, parent membership appointments must be filled by parents of children who are:

  • Enrolled in a publicly funded preschool program;
  • In grades first through 12th in a public school; or
  • In a state supported institution of higher education.

Click on the detailed description and application requirements.

Denver testing system to give teachers in-class evaluations and feedback

An effective teacher will ask students to explain their answers whether they are right or wrong. Effective teachers also wait about 3 to 5 seconds for students to respond, but will give more time to students who are English language learners. Read more in the Denver Post.

D-49 contract buyouts for three execs costs nearly $760,000

When Falcon School District 49 ended the contracts of three administrators early, it cost the district nearly $760,000, district officials confirmed. Read more in the Colorado Springs Gazette.

New LA schools chief to focus on teacher quality

The incoming Los Angeles schools superintendent says he will boost student achievement through better teaching when he takes the reins of the nation’s second-largest school district in April. Read more in the  San Francisco Chronicle.

Harvard report questions value of  ‘college for all’

By concentrating too much on classroom-based academics with four-year college as a goal, the nation’s education system has failed vast numbers of students, who instead need solid preparation for careers requiring less than a bachelor’s degree, Harvard scholars say in a recent report. Read more in EdWeek.

Englewood schools, Morgridge Foundation establish partnership

Efforts to overhaul Englewood School District received a big boost recently when the Morgridge Family Foundation established a partnership with the district. Read more in the Englewood Herald.

Schools look at why students are behind

Four underperforming St. Vrain Valley School District schools are changing some teaching methods to increase student achievement. Read more in the Longmont Times-Call.

Clock ticking on APS graduation requirement proposal

Time is running out for the Aurora Public Schools Board of Education to make a decision on proposed changes to the district’s graduation requirements.

The board is set to vote during its Feb. 8 meeting on amendments that would allow high school students more flexibility in choosing their elective courses and that would add science, math and world language credits to the current graduation requirements. Read more in the Aurora Sentinel.

Boulder Valley schools announce public budget forums

Boulder Valley School District Superintendent Chris King has announced the schedule for five BVSD public budget forums throughout BVSD beginning Monday, Feb. 7, and ending Tuesday, March 8. The purpose of these forums is to update and consult interested residents about the development of the preliminary 2011-2012 BVSD annual budget. Under state law, a balanced 2011-2012 BVSD annual budget must be approved.

  • Fireside Elementary School, 845 W. Dahlia St., Louisville, 6 to 8 p.m. Monday, Feb.  7
  • Boulder Public Library, George Reynolds Branch, 3595 Table Mesa Dr., Boulder, 10 a.m. to noon  Tuesday, Feb. 15
  • Mamie Dowd Eisenhower Library, 3 Community Park Road, Broomfield, 10:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m.           Wednesday, Feb. 23
  • Nederland Elementary School, 1 Sundown Trail, Nederland, 6 to 8 p.m.  Wednesday, Feb. 23
  • Lafayette Public Library, 775 West Baseline Road, Lafayette, 10 a.m. to noon Tuesday, March 8

Wanted: Ways to assess the majority of teachers

The debate about “value added” measures of teaching may be the most divisive topic in teacher-quality policy today. It has generated sharp-tongued exchanges in public forums, in news stories, and on editorial pages. And it has produced enough policy briefs to fell whole forests. Read more in EdWeek.

Colorado middle and high school students take a math test on a weekend

A three-hour-long math test on a weekend afternoon may be nerve-racking for most middle or high school students, but not for 17-year-old Greeley West High School senior Miguel Perez. Read more in the Greeley Tribune.

First Person

What we’ve learned from leading schools in Denver’s Luminary network — and how we’ve used our financial freedom

PHOTO: Nicholas Garcia
Cole Arts and Science Academy Principal Jennifer Jackson sits with students at a school meeting in November 2015.

First Person is a standing feature where guest contributors write about pressing issues in public education. Want to contribute? More details here

Three years ago, we were among a group of Denver principals who began meeting to tackle an important question: How could we use Colorado’s innovation schools law to take our schools to the next level?

As leaders of innovation schools, we already had the ability to make our own choices around the curriculum, length of school day, and staffing at our campuses. But some of us concluded that by joining forces as an independent network, we could do even more. From those early meetings, the Luminary Learning Network, Denver’s first school innovation zone, was born.

Now, our day-to-day operations are managed by an independent nonprofit, but we’re still ultimately answerable to Denver Public Schools and its board. This arrangement allows us to operate with many of the freedoms of charter schools while remaining within the DPS fold.

Our four-school network is now in its second year trying this new structure. Already, we have learned some valuable lessons.

One is that having more control over our school budget dollars is a powerful way to target our greatest needs. At Cole Arts & Science Academy, we recognized that we could serve our scholars more effectively and thoughtfully if we had more tools for dealing with children experiencing trauma. The budget flexibility provided by the Luminary Learning Network meant we were able to provide staff members with more than 40 hours of specially targeted professional development.

In post-training surveys, 98 percent of our staff members reported the training was effective, and many said it has helped them better manage behavioral issues in the classroom. Since the training, the number of student behavior incidents leading to office referrals has decreased from 545 incidents in 2016 to 54 in 2017.

At Denver Green School, we’ve hired a full-time school psychologist to help meet our students’ social-emotional learning goals. She has proved to be an invaluable resource for our school – a piece we were missing before without even realizing how important it could be. With a full-time person on board, we have been able to employ proactive moves like group and individual counseling, none of which we could do before with only a part-time social worker or school psychologist.

Both of us have also found that having our own executive coaches has helped us grow as school leaders. Having a coach who knows you and your school well allows you to be more open, honest, and vulnerable. This leads to greater professional growth and more effective leadership.

Another lesson: scale matters. As a network, we have developed our own school review process – non-punitive site visits where each school community receives honest, targeted feedback from a team of respected peers. Our teachers participate in a single cross-school teacher council to share common challenges and explore solutions. And because we’re a network of just four schools, both the teacher council and the school reviews are small-scale, educator-driven, and uniquely useful to our schools and our students. (We discuss this more in a recently published case study.)

Finally, the ability to opt out of some district services has freed us from many meetings that used to take us out of our buildings frequently. Having more time to visit classrooms and walk the halls helps us keep our fingers on the pulse of our schools, to support teachers, and to increase student achievement.

We’ve also had to make trade-offs. As part of the district, we still pay for some things (like sports programs) our specific schools don’t use. And since we’re building a new structure, it’s not always clear how all of the pieces fit together best.

But 18 months into the Luminary Learning Network experiment, we are convinced we have devised a strategy that can make a real difference for students, educators, and school leaders.

Watch our results. We are confident that over the next couple of years, they will prove our case.

Jennifer Jackson is the principal of Cole Arts & Science Academy, which serves students from early childhood to grade five with a focus on the arts, science, and literacy. Frank Coyne is a lead partner at Denver Green School, which serves students from early childhood to grade eight with a focus on sustainability.

First Person

Let’s be careful with using ‘grading floors.’ They may lead to lifelong ceilings for our students

PHOTO: Helen H. Richardson, The Denver Post

I am not a teacher. I am not a principal. I am not a school board member. I am not a district administrator (anymore).

What I am is a mother of two, a high-schooler and middle-schooler. I expect them both to do their “personal best” across the board: chores, projects, personal relationships, and yes, school.

That does not mean all As or Bs. We recognize the sometimes arbitrary nature of grades. (For example, what is “class participation” — is it how much you talk, even when your comments are off topic?) We have made it very clear that as long as they do their “personal best,” we are proud.

That doesn’t mean, though, that when someone’s personal best results in a poor grade, we should look away. We have to ask what that grade tells us. Often, it’s something important.

I believe grading floors — the practice (for now, banned in Memphis) of deciding the lowest possible grade to give a student — are a short-sighted solution to a larger issue. If we use grade floors without acknowledging why we feel compelled to do so, we perpetuate the very problem we seek to address.

"If we use grade floors without acknowledging why we feel compelled to do so, we perpetuate the very problem we seek to address."Natalie McKinney
In a recent piece, Marlena Little, an obviously dedicated teacher, cites Superintendent Hopson’s primary drive for grade floors as a desire to avoid “creat[ing] kids who don’t have hope.” I am not without empathy for the toll failing a course may take on a student. But this sentiment focuses on the social-emotional learning aspect of our students’ education only.

Learning a subject builds knowledge. Obtaining an unearned grade only provides a misleading indication of a child’s growth.

This matters because our students depend on us to ensure they will be prepared for opportunities after high school. To do this, our students must possess, at the very least, a foundation in reading, writing and arithmetic. If we mask real academic issues with grade floors year after year, we risk missing a chance to hold everyone — community, parents, the school board, district administration, school leaders, teachers, and students — accountable for rectifying the issue. It also may mean our students will be unable to find employment providing living wages, resulting in the perpetuation of generational poverty.

An accurate grade helps the teacher, parents, and district appropriately respond to the needs of the student. And true compassion lies in how we respond to a student’s F. It should act as an alarm, triggering access to additional work, other intervention from the teacher or school, or the use of a grade recovery program.

Ms. Little also illustrates how important it is to have a shared understanding about what grades should mean. If the fifth-grade boy she refers to who demonstrates mastery of a subject orally but has a problem demonstrating that in a written format, why should he earn a zero (or near-zero) in the class? If we agree that grades should provide an indicator of how well a student knows the subject at hand, I would argue that that fifth-grade boy should earn a passing grade. He knows the work! We don’t need grade floors in that case — we need different ideas about grades themselves.

We should also reconsider the idea that an F is an F. It is not. A zero indicates that the student did not understand any of the work or the student did not do any of the work. A 50 percent could indicate that the student understood the information half the time. That is a distinction with a difference.

Where should we go from here? I have a few ideas, and welcome more:

  1. In the short term, utilize the grade recovery rules that allow a student to use the nine weeks after receiving a failing grade to demonstrate their mastery of a subject — or “personal best” — through monitored and documented additional work.
  2. In the intermediate term, create or allow teachers to create alternative assessments like those used with students with disabilities to accommodate different ways of demonstrating mastery of a subject.
  3. In the long term, in the absence of additional money for the district, redeploy resources in a coordinated and strategic way to help families and teachers support student learning. Invest in the development of a rich, substantive core curriculum and give teachers the training and collaboration time they need.

I, like Ms. Little, do not have all the answers. This is work that requires our collective brilliance and commitment for the sake of our children.

Natalie McKinney is the executive director of Whole Child Strategies, Inc., a Memphis-based nonprofit that provides funding and support for community-driven solutions for addressing attendance and discipline issues that hinder academic success. She previously served as the director of policy for both Shelby County Schools and legacy Memphis City Schools.